Lessons: Censor Me!
Censor Me!    rev.09.27.2005 Back to Lessons

From The Times Online in the United Kingdom, September 24, 2005

'The American banned list reveals a society with serious hang-ups'
By Ben MacIntyre

CENSORSHIP OF ANYTHING, for any reason whatever, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, has always been, and always will be, doomed to eventual failure.

Christian protesters thought they had successfully scuppered a national tour of Jerry Springer: The Opera, only to find that 21 theatres had decided to band together to ensure that the show must go on. People who like to ban things never seem to realise that the more a work of art is subjected to the outraged squeals of the censors, the more popular it becomes. “To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it,” said Montaigne, reaching for the absinthe (banned in France in 1915; unbanned in 2001). The outlawing of The Satanic Verses in several Islamic countries hugely boosted sales of Salman Rushdie’s least distinguished book. When the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted in 1960, it sold two million copies in a year: on publication day, outside Foyle’s, London’s largest bookshop, a queue of 400 formed before the doors opened. Most of these were men; sadly, history does not relate how many were also gardeners.

Books cannot be banned, and staunchly refuse to be burnt: as the Nazis discovered when they sought to eradicate “degenerate” literature, and as anti-Nazis discover every time they try to outlaw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf. Bash, belittle and ban the thing you hate, and it grows back even more vigorously: like bindweed, or hydra, or Anne Robinson.

Next week is Banned Books Week in the US, when the American Library Association lists all the books that, over the previous year, people have attempted to remove from the shelves of libraries, schools and universities. This makes for sobering reading: the top ten most opposed authors in the US include J. K.Rowling (for promoting witchcraft), John Steinbeck (bad language), Maya Angelou (for sexual explicitness) and Stephen King (for being scary). In the list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of the past decade, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn comes in at No 5 (use of the word “nigger”), J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye at 13 (profanity, sexual references) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple at No 18 (inappropriate language, sex). Astonishingly, Brett Easton Ellis’s serial-killing saga American Psycho (a book that possibly merits banning for adjective abuse) comes romping in at No 60.

Some of the recent attempts at censorship would be hilarious if they were not so chilling. Eureka, Illinois, removed Chaucer from its high school literature course on the grounds of sexual content. Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was removed from some classrooms in Virginia because it promoted disobedience towards authority figures. Delightfully, Twelfth Night fell foul of the school board in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where the Bard stood accused of promoting an “alternative lifestyle”, with all that disgusting cross-dressing. But perhaps the most remarkable act of censorious foolishness came a few years ago when four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl on the basis that it was “a real downer”.

The American list of opposed books reveals a society still struggling with major hang-ups about sex, race, religion and Holocaust victims who are insufficiently jolly. But it should be added that these periodic attempts to ban books have met with universal failure: indeed, every copy of Harry Potter consigned to the fire for blasphemy merely fans the flames of J. K. Rowling’s popularity. But ’twas ever thus. In the 1930s Senator Smoot of Utah launched an anti-pornography campaign to the delight of Ogden Nash:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverent occiput.
Smite. Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l--ns, Smite h-p and th-gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and By.

Every book-banning says more about the censor than the book. The prosecuting counsel in the Lady Chatterley trial could not have revealed his old-fashioned prejudices more obviously than when he asked the jury: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” The Greek junta laid its paranoia bare for all when, in 1967, it banned Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ antiwar masterpiece.

Even China, so expert at banning, cannot hold back books for long. Last year two Chinese authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, published the snappily titled A Survey of Chinese Peasants, an exposé of the plight of China’s 800 million agricultural poor. It was banned by the Government, promptly and inevitably, but has since gone on to sell an estimated eight million copies in 30 pirate editions. Chen and Wu were last year awarded the Lettres Ulysses Award in Berlin. (Yes, that is James Joyce’s Ulysses: banned in Britain for 14 years, as “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting”; recently selected by the Modern Library as the best novel of the 20th century.)

So, as the anti-Jerry Springer brigade seeks, once again, to ban the unbannable, let us remember Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who took all the rude and offensive bits out of Shakespeare: “I regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare.”

Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare prospered briefly, and then vanished utterly. Bowdler survives only as a pejorative term in the OED, a fitting epitaph for this literary King Canute (or Smoot), who tried, and failed, to, hold back the unstoppable tide.

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